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Merlin 5x01: Arthur's Bane Part One
Gwen 1

I have misgivings posting about this when the rest of the fandom is so far ahead of me (never mind that this episode seems to need its second half more than many other two-parters), but I do adore this show. Nice to see it back!

Three years later… So we’ve had another leap in time, enough to establish that quite a bit has changed and quite a bit has not.

Arthur and Guinevere are comfortably ensconced as king and queen, and have obviously had great success as joint rulers. The Round Table has been established, and my theory about why it happened offstage the same as why the show skips Guinevere’s early days as queen; we’ve actually already seen it.

Guinevere’s entire arc since her first appearance in “The Dragon’s Call” has been about growing into power, and we saw Arthur convene his first Round Table in the finale to S3. Presumably the revived institution is drawing on the same ethos of equality and emulation of the ancient kings he mentioned them; the difference is that since we last saw him retake Camelot from Morgana (again) and marry Guienvere, he’s actually put it into practice.

Both royals project immense comfort in their roles, and the contrast with the Arthur of S4 is particularly striking. He seems much easier in her position of authority, perhaps precisely because he is sharing so much of it with his queen and the Round Table fellowship.

Arthur even has a clearly-articulated theory of loyalty to his knights, based on the classically Arthurian idea that it’s better to die for one’s principles than sully them. This is an improvement on Arthur’s tendency to throw himself into danger for plot-related reasons coming across as just that, or as an actual death wish.

And the royal couple are not the only one’s who’ve grown: knights Leon, Elyan, and Gwaine have taken on real authority and now command missions independently and advise the royals privately. (Based on reaction shots and actorly choices, Elyan and Guinevere also seem to have a stronger relationship.)

In other words, Gaius is no longer the only advisor. He too has a seat at the Round Table—proof that the fellowship includes commoners and non-combatants who don’t happen to be queen—though the fact that he’s taken Uther’s spot in the credits and the, um, interesting hairpiece-related attempt to make him look older did make me wonder if he’s going to survive long.

We also have the reappearance of Queen Annis, whose relationship with Camelot has clearly come a long way since she decided she wouldn’t try to kill Arthur again. (Interestingly, the episode suggests that both Guinevere and Leon are more informed about the alliance with Annis than Arthur.)

And for the first time we see Annis smiling and laughing—healed from her grief. At the same time, her assumption that Merlin is a useless fool recalls their meeting when the latter ruined Arthur’s attempt to negotiate peace (or her close relationship with Camelot means she knows Arthur will enjoy the joke).

Still status quo. The other significant change, in Morgana, is inferred largely through Annis, who clearly sees her as a imminent danger in ways she didn’t three years ago, and Arthur. His terrified reaction to the appearance of his half-sister in battle—when the last we saw he didn’t hesitate to attack her with no magical back-up and won—speaks volumes; the implication is that she’s gotten more scarier.

Unfortunately, despite her tirade about patience, Morgana herself doesn’t seem to have changed much; she’s still bitter, bad to her allies, and possessed of questionable interior decorating skills (though much better transportation).

Even her plan here makes a familiar point about her similarity to her father—the last person we saw digging under the foundation of their own castle for personal gain was Uther in “The Curse of Cornelius Sigan.” (It didn’t work out so well for him; we’ll see if Morgana turns out any better.)

In fact, both Merlin and Morgana seem frozen in their development; I presume both will get character moments in the second part. Even Merlin’s usual ironic comments on his magic secret (like “Wish I could”) suggests frustration but also resignation, the sense that nothing is going to change.

Over and over again, as we have in previous seasons, we see Merlin isolated from the other characters: He stands apart even from Sefa in the Round Table scene; is physically distanced and silent in the Privy Council scene (in which three of the advisors, Guinevere, Gaius, and Elyan are commoners); and sets himself apart when the knights camps on the hillside.

In that scene Arthur does reach out to Merlin, moving toward him, asking what’s wrong, and leading him back to the circle of the campfire. Arthur seems more comfortable serving as connective tissue among his men than actually commanding them—a model about as far from Uther’s as can be.

And in turn Merlin does make one overture of his own, telling Arthur honestly about the druid seer, which I don’t think earlier-series Merlins would have done. But even this scene underlines what has not changed: Magic is still outlawed, as Sefa’s defense makes clear, and Arthur is deeply distrustful of sorcerers.

And Merlin is still obsessed with protecting Arthur—perhaps justifiably, given his Camlann vision. But he has nothing else, and interacts with no one outside Arthur, except Kilgharrah (with whom he discusses protecting Arthur) and Sefa, a relationship that seems unlikely to go anywhere.

Oh, and Kilgarrah is definitely hiding something in their brief conversation.

Sense and sensibility. Merlin is not a show that you watch in the faith that every plot movement will exhibit elegant logic, but there’s noticeably new emphasis on sensible precautions in this episode.

Guinevere’s wise suggestion is one example (leaving aside that Morgana guards only one of her borders); so is Arthur’s decision to send Elyan and company along the ridge to ward off ambush. The former exhibits Guinevere’s intelligence and influence; the latter greatly increases the suspense, setting characters and audience on edge. Even the fact that the rescuers have reason to believe Gwaine et al. are alive makes their mission more reasonable—as does the fact that Guinevere is capably running the government at home.

All of which only highlights the stupidity of Merlin carrying Arthur off in the middle of battle, and Arthur presuming that his large force of knights has been defeated and insisting on pursuing Morgana alone. Obviously Elyan manages to save Leon from Ruadan and rally a retreat, because half a dozen knights make it home to Camelot. It would have made more sense for all to stick together.

I‘m honestly unsure whether this is simply plot convenience—the writers obviously wanted to introduce them to Mordred (plus they seem to really love the net gag)—or we’re supposed to notice that our two heroes’ stupidity flows from their individual weaknesses: Merlin’s monomaniacal focus on Arthur’s safety, and Arthur’s obsession with saving his knights.

Sefa v. Guinevere. Meanwhile, the most interesting part of the episode comes with the introduction of Sefa as Guinevere’s handmaiden and her father’s spy. Sefa is interesting precisely because she is so weak as a character, and the narrative seems to want us to sympathize with her fears and misgiving even while understanding that she’s up to no good.

Hence the emphasis on her highly personal motivation, to please her father, who is fairly cold (or at least so single-mindedly focused on his cause as to hurt her) in their single scene, and the camera lingering on Sefa’s visible disappointment when her father won’t take her with her. Sefa is not so different from the young Arthur—who also caused the deaths of many innocents in his desire to please his father. Arthur had greater depth of responsibility, but also misgivings—like Sefa, who clearly feels some guilt at betraying the queen who has been good to her.

Guinevere’s goodness has some basis in her ability to imagine her handmaiden having a fully-realized life outside her duties. (The fact that Guinevere doesn’t press for details may also be linked to how uncomfortable she was with Morgana knowing about her early crush on Merlin.)

But Guinevere’s intelligence and ruthlessness actually have the same basis as her previous kindness to Sefa; she correctly identifies the spy because she has been carefully observing Sefa in an attentive-manager way all along, noticing not only her nocturnal departure but her presence outside the council chamber. The very thing that makes Guinevere such a kind queen—her benevolent and observant attention toward her subjects—is also what makes her formidable—even dangerous.

Camelot justice. This is the fourth public trial for treason we’ve seen in Camelot, and they all follow a familiar pattern. All the court watches as the defendant kneels and speaks, with any witnesses offering their testimony and the ruler passing final judgment. (Always guilty.) Afterward, the judge discusses the case with close confidants who disagree with the ruling; and the convicted never dies.

Sefa’s trial closely follows at least the first half of the pattern, with Guinevere taking the role of judge. Previously, we saw Uther condemn Gwen herself for calling the plague (wrongly) and Alvarr for fomenting rebellion (rightly), and Morgana sentence Leon for refusing his allegiance.

Uther also tried Gwen similarly when accused casting a love spell on Arthur—but that was dealt with privately at night, without the larger audience, presumably because the crime affected the royal family and not the entire kingdom. Here the very public nature of Sefa’s trial also highlights the transformation of the handmaid and queen’s previous intimate relationship to a political one.

The parallel is particularly strong with Alvarr, who was also guilty and also publically admitted it, offering a critique of anti-magic Camelot (however self-motivated) not so far from Sefa’s. Notably, Guinevere sits on the throne after she condemns Sefa, exactly as Uther did after judging Alvarr.

With this background, it’s important to note that Guinevere focuses the trial on extracting Sefa’s confession, and waits until she has publicly admitted guilt to sentence her. In both Gwen’s similar interactions with Uther (deliberately recalled here), she steadfastly maintained her innocence. It seems her experience with wrongful convictions has led her emphasize the importance of confessions in political trials.

Of course, in every single one of these previous examples, the condemned did not die, and the trial was immediately followed by a conference between the judge and their family or confidantes. It remains to be seen if Guinevere will also have such a conversation with Elyan or another member of her Privy Council, and whether Sefa will be unlucky enough to break the pattern of last-minute escapes.

Visions of the end. This show is stunningly beautiful, and its visual advances can be seen even in mundane moments like the oft-repeated shots of knights riding out of Camelot. We’ve seen this scene in every series, but never with such gorgeous camera-work and unexpected angles.

Likewise the moving camera for the Privy Council scene not only enlivens and adds tension to the exposition, but calls attention to Guinevere’s stratagem and emphasizes Merlin’s position outside the circle of our gaze. Even quiet moments like Merlin looking into the firelight are not only beautiful, but emphasize the character’s age since he began in Camelot.

Finally, despite the vague prophetic blather that precedes it, Merlin’s vision in the water is genuinely unnerving—not only because it’s pointedly filmed so that Mordred closely resembles Merlin from the back.

The fact that Arthur (in a very nice touch by Bradley James) is clearly unwilling to fight Mordred is intriguing, and recalls the fact that in our previous glimpse of that fatal battle, Morgana calls out to Emrys for help. All of which suggests a highly unsettling scrambling of allegiances from what we know now; how could Morgana and Emrys might be, however mistakenly, on the same side?

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It's nice to see you back! :)

Kilgarrah is always hiding something and I wonder if Merlin should always be so easy in trusting him.

Guinevere's sentencing of Sefa has been controversial - some people claiming that power has gone to her head. But I agree with you that Gwen's ability to see her servants as more than servants gives her the information needed to realise the traitor is Sefa. I'm not sure why the narrative seems to want us to sympathize with Sefa though. Are we supposed to disagree with Gwen?

This scene also made me curious about Gwen's thoughts of magic. I know people who argue that Gwen would be more open to magic than Arthur but I think that there's no reason Gwen would be. I suspect she shares Arthur's view that magic is evil.

It would appear that a lot of this series is about Merlin being outside the circle.


I think we're supposed to see that Gwen is right but also feel pity for Sefa. She's definitely presented as pitiable as opposed to admirable--and above all, weak, the tool of her father. And I think there's a subtle point being made for those who might have thought Guinevere's sweet and kind persona would make her too much of a pushover as queen; she can handle the hard stuff.

Actually, I take the scene in which she condemns Sefa as a great rebuttal to the claim that Guinevere doesn't have real power because it all comes from her marriage to Arthur; she is actively governing in all senses of the word, and this fits well with what we've seen of Queen Annis, who certainly ruled and led in the absence of her husband.

I wrote this before I saw Part 2, but have since seen it (though no more), and I have much more to say about Guinevere's thoughts on magic in Part 2.

Ooh, you are making me curious. Not that Merlin being excluded doesn't make sense, but it does surprise me a bit that so little has changed for him--he's been an outsider so long.

I definitely love that in the first two episodes, the point is made that Guinevere is perfectly capable of governing Camelot and that Arthur trusts her to govern Camelot in his absence. I think Guinevere's strength has been something that has been emphasised in the narrative a lot from s1 - from her dealing with her father's death to standing up to Uther. Sometimes when I think about it, I think that despite her limited screentime, she's has had the most consistent character development.

Speaking of Annis, I like how this suggests that Arthur has been going round making peace with the various kingdoms.

Ooh I hope to read your thoughts on Gwen's thoughts on magic soon then. :)

I think Merlin's outsider status is interesting because I thought in this episode, it was subtly shown (through Arthur reaching out to Merlin several times) that the Arthur/Merlin friendship has become deeper in a way.

I think that despite her limited screentime, she's has had the most consistent character development.

I agree with this. Though I think Uther has been just as consistent in his development, just in the opposite direction, from a position as a strong if seriously flawed ruler to a man made increasingly weaker by his love for his children and own flaws. Like Gwen's arc, his movement from the strong villain we all fear to the pathetic man who has bequeathed a troubled world to his heirs is a strong through-line from S1 to S2, where so many other hitches occur.

Very interesting--I saw Arthur reaching out to Merlin more as a sign of character growth on Arthur's part, but you make a good point that it may in fact be the deepening of their friendship.

Your meta is back! Excellent.

The Round Table has been established, and my theory about why it happened offstage the same as why the show skips Guinevere’s early days as queen; we’ve actually already seen it.

Agreed. I have a problem with the three years gap, but it's not about the Round Table or Guinevere, whom we indeed have seen becoming queen. BTW, I'm also glad that the show gives me enough leaveway so that my idea about Gwen shortly post s4 can still happen. (I did write a new Gwen story due to the new season, but it wasn't that one - it was a missing scene of 5.03 one.) That it was Gwen who suggests going through Annis' land works really well with it. :) (And was a good way to demonstrate Gwen-as-co-ruler in a show, not tell manner.)

Magic is still outlawed, as Sefa’s defense makes clear, and Arthur is deeply distrustful of sorcerers.

That would be my three years gap problem. Also the non-promotion of Merlin (as opposed to everyone else; also there's no sign Arthur treats the knights who weren't nobles differently than those who were, which makes the Merlin attitude bewildering).

I loved the Sefa and Guinevere scenes and was bewildered, once I had written my own review, to read so many people complaining that Gwen was ooc there, because, well, everything you said. (Maybe people see Gwen as Morgana describes her to Shade!Lancelot?) Good comparison between Sefa and younger Arthur, too, vis a vis their fathers; I think Sefa claiming she never wanted to hurt anyone is disingenous, because her father made it very clear that that was what he wanted.

Can't comment on Mordred, Merlin and Arthur without being spoilery. But I do like what the show is doing with him.

Thank you!

And OMG--you mean I'm not only terribly far behind on actually watching the show, but on your stories?! I must catch up.

That would be my three years gap problem.

Well, yeah. I don't know what to do with that, except to presume that it's going somewhere. I hope.

And Merlin's non-promotion is really glaring, especially during the Privy Council scene; given how much Merlin has advised Arthur in the past, especially in S4, why isn't he an advisor like Gaius, or at least an unofficial one as Gwen was previous to their marriage?

I was trying to think whether we have reason to believe that Merlin's secret magical role as protector has actually hindered him from achieving promotion the way that Gwen, Gaius, Elyan, Gwain, Percival, etc have -- because on a plausibility level, I could completely believe if it the lies, secrets, and strange unexplained behavior held him back -- but I don't actually think we've seen that on screen, or anything else that would explain it. It makes you wonder if he would have been better off being Gaius's assistant instead of Arthur's servant, except for the inevitable non-survival of Camelot problems.

I loved the Sefa and Guinevere scenes and was bewildered, once I had written my own review, to read so many people complaining that Gwen was ooc there

I am starting to think that being bewildered by other people's reactions to Gwen is a basic part of this fandom. Yes, it's surprising to see her take the hard line, but it's neither unwarranted or out of character, and I for one was relieved to see the show take the deaths of extras seriously for once.

Excellent point about Sefa knowing the logical outcome of her actions. I'm willing to buy that she's so single-mindedly focused on her dad's approval that she doesn't think through the consequences, but she knows what she's doing is wrong beforehand (see shifty guilty expressions) and does it anyway. And as Dante said, you can't repent for a crime before you commit it. I think we're meant to pity her while respecting Guinevere's position.

And I am heartened to hear that the show is doing good things with Mordred! I'm very intrigued.

Yay, I've been looking forward to this!

we’re supposed to notice that our two heroes’ stupidity flows from their individual weaknesses: Merlin’s monomaniacal focus on Arthur’s safety

This reminds me of a writing workshop years ago, when it was pointed out to me that a character flaw doesn't necessarily have to be a "flaw" - it can be a virtue taken to extreme. This is definitely the case with Merlin and his "protect Arthur at all costs" mantra. I get increasingly surprised when I spot various bits of fandom gushing over how touching it is, especially this season when it's very deliberately being framed as something that is NOT a good thing.

I mean, he was advising Arthur to abandon the quest to save the knights because it put his life in danger - which essentially amounts to Merlin throwing Gwaine and Percival under the bus.

And this becomes even more pronounced as the series goes on - no spoilers here but: episode 5. Oh, episode 5!

But he has nothing else, and interacts with no one outside Arthur, except Kilgharrah (with whom he discusses protecting Arthur) and Sefa, a relationship that seems unlikely to go anywhere.

So true. And it's not good for him. Another thing that strikes me (though I'm going to be very vague again to avoid spoilers) is that we see several scenes of both Merlin and Guinevere offering their council to Arthur - separately. The difference between what they tell him is striking: Merlin is still very much telling Arthur what he wants to hear, whilst Gwen is opening challenging him on his decisions and motivation. The only similiarity is that Arthur hardly ever listens to either of them.

There's a beautiful scene coming up in episode 5 in which Merlin and Gwen openly acknowledge this with each other - which actually gives me hope that the writers do have a slightly firmer hold on their themes and ideas this time around.

Looking forward to your thoughts on part II!

I agree with you. Gwen is a capable ruler, she is clearly comfortable with ruling, and that was delightful to watch. I think that some guards must have been particularly afraid after she was crowned (or after she was established as a trusted adviser), and some of them probably didn't show up at work the next day.

I remember thinking, while watching the first episode, that Sefa would help to bring new developments for Gwen. She both mirrors Morgana (the friend who betrayed Gwen and used her intimate knowledge of her to make her fall out of power), and Gwen, the friend who was sacrificed to achieve an ideal by someone who knew that she didn't completely understand how she could be detrimental to it, nor who she may harm in the future, and acted on partly selfish reasons (I thought that Gwen had a really hard look on her face when she learnt that Sefa's father has magic in the reaction shot, and that reminded me of the deleted scene you made a post about in series 4). I won't spoil to you how that turned out, but the developments it announced are really exciting.

Edited at 2012-11-12 11:58 am (UTC)

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